September 10, 2017

Awkward Graces


Text: Matthew 18:15: “If another member of the church sins against you,
go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

It’s hard for us to talk together these days. It seems almost as though all of the things we used to think we all agreed on are being torn open to debate—debate and angry disagreement. It’s disturbing even to list the topics, or simply to read the headlines in the newspaper; the treatment of immigrants, and especially immigrant children; the continuing challenge of dealing with past injustices that were, and are, defined by race; relationships between religious communities that somehow never move past the surface of suspicion; the values by which our government should work.

For a community like ours this is all a little disorienting. We want to think that all the people we share our church with of course agree with us on most things, or at least on the big things. When we’ve spent a little time away from each other, when we’ve been off on summer vacation or away for awhile—especially after a summer like this summer—well, maybe it feels as though we need to walk a little tenderly, be a little wary of each other. Maybe someone sitting near you in the pews really disagrees with your views on, well, who knows?

Of course, it used to be different. Not because we always all agreed on everything, but because we didn’t expect to agree on much. The church, especially the Episcopal church, was formed out of disagreement. It brought together people who could not agree on much except that it didn’t make much sense to fight actual bloody wars over their religious disagreements anymore.

That was true throughout most of the history of our country as well. Exactly because we are a nation of immigrants, when people first came here—almost regardless of where they came from—they looked for a church that was the closest thing to the same church they’d left in the old country.

The church became the place that gave them a toehold for building a new life in a new place. What they had in common was that they were starting their lives over. The church would help them learn the language, set them up with a network of friends who could help them find jobs and schools and mates, and get them started on a new road.

But that didn’t mean they had much else in common. In fact they didn’t. The churches that were filled with our immigrant grandparents and great grandparents were filled with people who came from every possible part of the socioeconomic ladder, had varying levels of education, and had political views all over the spectrum. They were liberal and conservative, shop owners and factory workers and farmers, people who brought their traditions from the places they’d come from and met up with people who had different traditions from different places.

Somehow they all had to manage to get along when it came to creating the community of the church. And in that they were no different from the way the church had been since it began.

When Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome he knows he is writing to a church made up of people who are not necessarily seeing eye-to-eye on everything. Some of them have come into the faith from Jewish families, Jewish traditions, Jewish backgrounds. Some of them have not; they were non-Jews, not just from Rome but from ports of call all over the empire, who had little else in common other than not being Jewish.

Out of this assortment of people a church emerged, caught up in the unifying power of the gospel message about forgiveness and mercy and the urgency of coming to a deeper relationship with God. But that unity was always breaking down around the edges of their differences. From the very beginning Christian community has never been easy.

Paul addresses this, like the pastoral theologian he is, by referring the church back to its founding principles. He connects the core values of the Jewish part of the community—the covenant code of the commandments—to the central moral teaching of Jesus, the teaching about loving neighbors as we love ourselves. In this one teaching Paul is trying to bridge the differences in that community by reminding them of the values that transcend their differences, and that point them to their higher, greater purpose.

But it is Jesus who gives the most practical advice for dealing with difficult discussions in the community. Because he teaches those disciples, and so teaches us, that at the very center of any Christian community is a commitment to the idea of staying in relationship with people you don’t agree with—even people who say things, and do things, that cause you discomfort, or even pain.

Over the centuries of our history, this teaching from Matthew has often, and wrongly, been used to justify ostracizing people, excommunicating people, shunning people, throwing them outside the embrace of the community. But that is not the point that Jesus is trying to make, and it’s not the most important lesson he’s trying to teach.

That careful, patient, gentle discipline about taking someone aside to try to talk to them, that’s meant for a specific purpose—to avoid false harmony, to make sure that the community is built of genuine and strong relationships.

Because if we allow that to happen, if we allow our preference for politeness to paper over the real disagreements we have, we build our house out of straw. It’s by finding ways to live into, and through, the things that may divide us—through them while holding onto each other in love—that we come out stronger on the other side.

So that’s the point of this teaching. It’s not about outcasting people; it’s about how we deal with the reality that communities made up of human beings always have differences, and how we deal with those differences in grace-filled ways. Maybe awkward, maybe difficult, but grace-filled ways.

And there’s one thing more. Jesus teaches his community that if they can manage to do this, if they can find ways of regarding each other with respect in the midst of their disagreements, they will be able to create communities of consensus and mutual respect—and those communities will indeed accomplish great things on God’s behalf.

I am not saying all this because there are great differences or disagreements within our community. There aren’t—at least I’m not aware of any.

But there is a bit of a danger here, one that has been growing for four or five decades now. It’s the danger Bill Bishop speaks of in his book The Big Sort—the idea that our strong preference to avoid disagreement is being lived out in our determination to arrange our lives so that we won’t risk being with those “others.” We live in neighborhoods among people like ourselves; we work largely among people like ourselves; and we either find groups to join of like-minded people or we don’t join at all.

That means we are really very different from the church of our grandparents and great grandparents—not because we are more diverse, even though we would like to think that we are, but because we are more homogeneous. We expect to be pretty much among people like us. And we lose our skills for disagreement.

But we are Christians in a moment of tremendous and deepening discord in our national life. And because we are, we have a particular responsibility to model loving, genuine disagreement—to model how to live through those difficult conversations in ways that can give us the ability to remain in relationship with the people we disagree with, and even those who do us harm. We have to learn those skills here, because they are desperately needed in the world outside our doors—and it is for us to lead in that world by graceful, even awkward, example. Amen.